SAN JOSE MINE, Chile (AP) - The first of 33 trapped miners is expected to be lifted to the surface late Tuesday after surviving more than two months about half a mile below ground, Chilean officials announced.
- Click the video player included with this report to view animation of how the miners will be rescued.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne announced said that officials "hope to have at least one of our miners on the surface" before the end of the day — apparently the longest period anyone has ever been trapped underground.
President Sebastian Pinera was expected to arrive shortly before the first miner is pulled out in a carefully choreographed operation meant to minimize any risk.
After a series of successful tests with the escape capsule, his remarks suggested there was no reason to wait any longer. Rescue workers on Monday had suggested the men might not be pulled out until after dawn Wednesday.
Asked about the biggest technical problem that could hit the rescue operation, coordinator Andre Sougarett said: "A rock could fall."
"There is no need to try to start guessing what could go wrong. We have done that job," a confident Golborne said. "We have hundreds of different contingencies."
Rescuers were keeping the miners busy on final preparations they were to climb into a custom-made capsule for what tests indicated should be a smooth ride to the outside world.
"The miners are very busy — that's also to keep their spirits up," Health Minister Jaime Manalich said. "It remains a paradox — they're actually much more relaxed than we are."
As the miners emerge, they will be sheltered from the glare of TV cameras. They will get an immediate medical check and gather with a few family members in an area closed to the news media. Officials say a siren will sound as each miner emerges.
Then, they will ride in helicopters — two at a time if they are in beds, or four at a time if they can sit up — to the regional hospital in Copiapo for a battery of physical and psychological exams.
"Our job is to provide benefit and not harm," Manalich said, urging the media — more than 1,000 journalists are working on the story — to respect their privacy. "We have to protect them until the last minute, until they can return to normal lives with their families."
Nearby, the miners' families have been holding vigil at a place called "Camp Hope."
"Here the tension is higher than down below. Down there they are calm," said Veronica Ticona, sister of 29-year-old Ariel Ticona, a trapped rubble-removal machine operator.
After 68 days of shared fears and jitters — all of it under the close scrutiny of dozens of reporters that have now grown to a battalion — the early fellowship has frayed. Some relationships, once at least cordial, are as hostile as the desolate sands of the surrounding Acatama desert.
Relatives privately shared stories of the divisiveness with an Associated Press reporter who spent the past month at the camp, frequently bedding down in a tent beside theirs, sharing coffee and gossip.
The feuds and jealousies within families centered on such matters as who got to take part in weekend videoconferences with the miners, who received letters and why — or even who should speak to the media and how much they should be revealing about a family's interior life.
Some relatives complained about distant kin seeking the international media limelight, giving interviews about trapped miners they barely know.
Then there are those who, despite only distant blood ties to miners, lined up for donated gifts including sexy lingerie, bottles of wine and electronic toys and Halloween costumes for children.
There were even fights over who constitutes a close relative — or even a miner's preferred conjugal companion.
So Alberto Iturra, the chief of the psychology team advising the trapped men, decided that after each miner rides an escape capsule to daylight, the rescued man will meet with between one and three people whom the miner has personally designated.
Then there is the question of money.
It has already strained relations between families as some seem to be getting more than others, including from some news media, who outnumber the miners' relations several fold.
Cognizant of the emotional toll, Iturra recommended Monday that the relatives leave the mine, go home and get some rest.
"I explained to the families that the only way one can receive someone is to first be home to open the door," Iturra said.
The dramatic endgame was hastening as the rescuers finished reinforcing the escape shaft early Monday and the 13-foot (four-meter)-tall rescue chamber descended flawlessly nearly all the way to the trapped men in a series of test runs.
On Monday, the Phoenix I capsule — the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers, named for the mythic bird that rose from ashes — made its first test runs after the top 180 feet (55 meters) of the shaft were lined with steel pipe, the rescue leader said.
Then the empty capsule was winched down